Reading Between the Lines


By Deeksha Sivakumar

There are many ways in which theorists researching religious traditions outside of our own particular areas of expertise can help us investigate our own scholarship. Last year I encountered the work of Daniel Boyarin who writes specifically about intertexuality in Jewish texts in his book Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, (1994).  His main claim includes that no text is devoid of history, context, and that hence every text is always in dialogue with and a representation of other texts. For Boyarin, since midrash (or texts for our purposes), are always in dialogue with other texts,  they require what is called an “intertextual reading.”

The text is always made up of a mosaic of unconscious and conscious citations of earlier discourse. (12)

Intertextuality emerges from the midrash re-citing quotations, parables (mashal), and various other incongruent stories and narratives as they appear in the Torah and the Bible creating gaps for the reader and reconfiguring and opening the text in new and interesting ways for interpretation. This particular quality also reflects the fluid nature of history and historical consciousness, and the various interpretive communities like the Rabbi who may be reading the midrash in different places in time.

There have been some very useful tools I received from Boyarin’s analysis of the midrash, for example, in looking at Hindu Sanskrit texts like the Purānā (“old stuff”), which lack chronology and authorship. As Boyarin suggests, the original authors in most cases are rather irrelevant but rather what is important is the way the text ‘weaves together’ other texts which precede them. For example, a famous Devi Māhātmya (Devi’s Praises), within the Markandeya Purānā (Old stories told by the Sage Markandeya), contains very useful stories about the Goddess slaying the buffalo demon Mahisha. However, as I delved deeper into studying and reading other Purānās  I came upon an almost exact rendition of this Devi Māhātmya in another text called Skanda Māhātmya  (Skanda’s praises) within a text called the Shiva Purānā (Old Stories of Shiva) where the slayer of the buffalo demon wasn’t the goddess Devi but was the young warrior Skanda instead. In this older text, there were woven together elements of the Markandeya Purana (11th & 12th Cent), Shiva Purānā (8th – 9th Cent) and even classical Sanskrit literature (genre of kāvya) from Kalidasa’sKumarasambhava (crica 5th Cent).

Boyarin’s argument of the midrash dovetails with a speculation on the historical nature and ambivalence produced by a closer reading of these Purānās by a Sanskrit scholar. Not only are elements of one current text (Devi’s Praises) borrowing from an earlier text (Skanda’s praises), but their very nature is intertextual and they both reveal qualities of the historical time in which they were read and interpreted. The earlier citation reveals the presence of the cult of Skanda in Southern India and celebrates his heroic nature in slaying the buffalo demon. The same story re-cited in 11th Cent showed the valiant goddess beheading that same buffalo demon and “Tantric Goddess” worship in South Eastern India. It also alludes to the fact that since history does not attribute specific authorship to any one of those particular texts (as they were received in oral form), Indian Religious history can be seen as malleable and borrows from the intertextuality of texts like the Purānās.

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